15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Her name was Susan. She was very involved in her local church. She was on the finances committee. The outreach to the elderly. The worship team. She helped out with the children. She lead a bible study group. And on this particular morning, she found herself awake very early. A few hours before the council meeting for that day. So she thought she had better put the time to good use. So she baked three trays of cinnamon buns, that everyone loved. She arrived at the meeting with these cinnamon buns still hot. She placed two trays on the counter, returned to her car to fetch the third tray, and as she was placing the third tray on the counter, Rebecca was on the other side of the counter pouring two packets of biscuits, that she had just bought from the store, in to a bowl. And Rebecca said to Susan, “So do you have to take over wherever you go?” Well that was enough to silence Susan. She just left her cinnamon buns on the counter and turned away. And she was silent for the rest of the day. At lunch time, when both Susan and Rebecca were both working in the kitchen together, they made quite sure that they were serving on opposite ends of the kitchen. The next day, it was the Sunday service. And when Rebecca arrived, she made sure to see where Susan was sitting, because they used to sit quite close to each other. And she decided to sit in a new seat, so that when the pastor asked them to stand up and greet one another, they would not be near enough to have to greet each other. That Wednesday evening, it was Bible study and someone commented out loud how lovely Susan’s cinnamon buns were that past Saturday. And as they mentioned that, Susan began to cry and then she explained to the Bible study group what Rebecca had said to her, and now the whole church knew.
Eventually, the church secretary started making sure that Rebecca and Susan were never paired together for any church activities or events. And sometimes, one of them was invited to something and the other wasn’t. Or whenever the church gathered around tables, people made sure to strategically place themselves between Susan and Rebecca.
Time passed. Until a new pastor arrived at the church. And Susan, out of kindness, welcomed the new pastor with a tray of cinnamon buns. Which the pastor loved! The pastor was going to be meeting the youth that Friday night for the first time and he thought it would be a wonderful idea if Susan could make some of those cinnamon buns for the youth. So he asked Susan and she said, “Yes, how many trays would you like?” And the pastor said, “I think three will do.” And something happened to Susan’s face at the mention of three trays. The pastor said, “Oh, I’m sorry, is that too much?” And Susan said, “No. I just haven’t baked three trays for a long time.” And then she told the pastor the story. After she told him and see that she was still emotional, the pastor asked her, “When did this happen?” And Susan said, “In October, it will be eight years.”
Have you ever seen conflict like this in the church? We all know stories like this, don’t we? At some point, I imagine we’ve all heard or been part of a story just like this. Anyone who thinks the church is filled with perfect people is fooling themselves. In fact, sometimes the church can be the place where we feel hurt and judged the most. I heard just a couple of weeks ago from a young person who said he is afraid to go back to church because he feels like everyone knows his past and is judging him.
It is a sad reality, but the church is filled with conflict. And sometimes it is even the birthplace of conflict. So, how do you respond when conflict arises? Do you fight or do you flight? Do you run towards the conflict to fight and win or do you run from away from it?
I think most of us have a tendency to run away from conflict. It is part of that MN Nice that is in us, because we don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings. But then as we saw with Susan, ironically, we have no trouble hurting their feelings behind their back. Or else we run from conflict because we think that conflict means fighting. It feels like you are at war with someone. But theologian Peter Rollins offers a different interpretation about what it means to be at war with someone. He has said that countries at war with each other are not countries in conflict. They are countries that couldn’t handle their conflict. War, fighting, is the result of not being able to handle conflict!
Today in our gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is giving us conflict resolution counseling. As many of us return to school with new teachers and as Sunday school starts with new classes, today all of us have the great gift of having Jesus as our teacher. And he is teaching us about how to manage conflict.
Which is good news, because it tells us that conflict in the church is nothing new. But rather it has been around a long time; it is part of being human.
So let’s look at what Jesus has to say. Jesus says first, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
Now, I don’t think this is Jesus’ most eloquent moment. I don’t think any of us would be too successful if we just go up pointing out people’s faults to them. Hey, I see you have some faults there. Would you like me to point them out to you? But rather, I think the emphasis of Jesus statement should be – go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. Go to them face-to-face. Speaking directly to them. Because it is so easy to speak around them. Which is called triangulation. Triangulation is when you speak to another person about someone else, with whom you really should be speaking. In our story earlier, Susan didn’t speak to Rebecca about what Rebecca did, Susan spoke to others about what Rebecca did. It is the same way with rumors, isn’t it? Instead of going to the person who the rumor is about to see if it is true, we go and tell others and wonder together if it is true. A friend of mine was a new pastor, and after only three weeks at this church, early one morning his wife had to leave for a long drive to go visit her family. But a woman who lived across the street from the parsonage saw her pack up and leave very early in the morning, and suddenly, the rumor was going around town that the pastor’s wife didn’t like it here and she’s leaving him. And no one came to ask them if it was true or not. So friends, let me know just say this…if you have a conflict with someone, please go and speak with them directly. Don’t whisper and spread it around because it will only lead to deeper hurt. Or if someone is talking to you about someone else, please stop them and say, “It sounds like you should be talking with them about it.” Otherwise it will only get worse. I promise.
And notice that the goal is not to get the other person to agree with you or to say you are right or to compromise. According to Jesus, the only goal is listening. That we might hear each other. So what if that doesn’t work? What if they don’t listen? Jesus says to take a couple of people with you and to try again. Which I imagine wouldn’t be all that comfortable for the other person. Suddenly, here is this gang of people coming to your door. But the point isn’t to bully or to gang up on, but rather to help each other listen. To account for the words spoken. Now, if that doesn’t work, Jesus says to tell the church. Which is even more awful to think about. Could you imagine having your dirty laundry aired out in the sermon on Sunday? Okay, everyone, it is time we talk about so-and-so and all the sinning he is doing. But I cannot imagine that this is so everyone can shame and look at so-and-so, but it is so that the whole church can help. Help to listen and help resolve the conflict.
And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says to treat them like the Gentiles and the tax collectors, who were the hate groups back them. And some of us might get excited at this point, because now we can finally kick this person out of the church. Now we can hate them. We’ve done everything we were supposed to do, but now I can really just get rid of this person. And that’s how people often hear this passage – as permission now to exclude. But we can’t forget that Jesus ate with gentiles and tax collectors. Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that if none of this works, take them out to dinner. Spend more time with them. Spend more time with them until you can understand one another and listen.
So that is Jesus’ conflict resolution strategy: go and speak with them one on one, then bring others to help, then tell the church, then spend more time with them. And while at times it might sound utterly ridiculous to our ears and we can’t imagine ever doing this in the church, there is one thing about this strategy that stands out to me….it is that Jesus’ strategy never gives up on the person. It never quits trying to resolve the conflict. Jesus doesn’t say give it one chance then give up on the person. But rather Jesus says to keep after the person. Keep trying to preserve and reconcile the relationship.
You see that is what this is all about – relationships. It isn’t about keeping people sinless and well-behaved. It isn’t about pointing out to others how bad they are or what they have done wrong. But it is about tending to our relationships.
Why? Not because it is just good advice. You can get that in a book at the library. Why tend to our relationships? Because God lives in our relationships. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am.” God dwells in our community. Among us, among people is where God makes God’s home. God is one who dwells in community. and that is an incredible promise. That God is with us. Now. But also to say, if God dwells within us as a community, what happens when part of that community is broken? What happens when our relationships aren’t right? God’s heart is broken as well. God is in the presence of the people. We tend to the community. We tend to our relationship because that is the very place where God will show up to us. When we gather to manage conflict, Jesus is there.
So, how are our relationships? As we all gather together at the start of a new fall and as it feels like we are gathering the whole family back together, it is quite possible that some of us are reunited with the person whom we’ve been trying to avoid. With someone we are in conflict with. And we invited to wonder – how shall I respond?